Theodore as sketch artist

A Socotran tree, by Theodore Bent (1897).

Theodore was a keen sketcher on all his travels, and most of his publications contain some examples of his work. There are numerous references in Mabel’s notebooks to Theodore sketching landscapes or attempting portraits – not always with success. Mabel captures one incident on Tilos in the Dodecanese in 1885:

All the women here are terrified at the idea of being photographed and my camera is rather a ‘white elephant’. They are also afraid of Theodore’s sketching them and all run away. There is one in particular, Kyriakí (Sunday) by name, one of those who carry our baggage, about 50 and very handsome, in the wildest darkest gypsy style, and when Theodore takes his book out she skips away like a goat. (Extract from Mabel’s Greek Chronicles, Tílos, Thursday, 5th March 1885)

“Coastal scenery west of Dhofar”. (Exploration of the Frankincense Country, Southern Arabia’. The Geographical Journal, 1895, Vol. 6 (2) (Aug), p. 115).

Very little seems to have survived of any of his original work except, miraculously, for a portfolio of African watercolours now in the National Archives, Harare. Various researches have failed to account for the journey of these pictures there, but it seems likely that they returned in the first instance to Cape Town (after some of them had been reproduced for his book) and then were eventually transferred to Rhodesia – perhaps they were presented to Cecil Rhodes. As fascinating documents of early archaeological explorations in the country they merit great care.

“Lake of Dirbat, Above the Abyss”. (Exploration of the Frankincense Country, Southern Arabia’. The Geographical Journal, 1895, Vol. 6 (2) (Aug), p. 128).

A fascinating reference in ‘The Queen, the Lady’s Newspaper’ June 30, 1900, page 1059, refers to a loan of ‘several valuable sketches by the late Theodore Bent, lent by Mrs Theodore Bent’ at ‘The South African Loan Exhibition held, by kind permission of the Duke of Westminster, at Grosvenor House “in aid of the loyal colonists in Africa who are sufferers by the war”.’ Presumably these were sketches of the Bents’ expedition to Great Zimbabwe in 1891. These may include those now in Harare but there is no way of knowing.

Bent’s sketches reproduced in his 1892 book on Great Zimbabwe, now in the the National Archives, Harare (the Bent Archive).

The collection of Bent’s watercolours in the Zimbabwe National Archives (Harare) is under lock and key and virtually impossible it seems to access, despite several enquiries and approaches by eminent local academics. Although we do not know what condition they are in after so long, hopefully one day this unique and highly important resource can be made available to international researchers. In the 1980s, Pat Hodgson, while working on a Bent biography, which, alas, she was never to complete, did succeed in obtaining a pack of black-and-white photographs. These original sketches/watercolours by Bent all appear in his monograph (1892) The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland.

“In Muskat harbour” (Exploration of the Frankincense Country, Southern Arabia’. The Geographical Journal, 1895, Vol. 6 (2) (Aug), p. 110).

Happily, some of his other sketches have been published to accompany Theodore’s many articles. Here is one from Adowa, Ethiopia.


Adua Church Theodore's sketch
‘Cathedral Church of Holy Trinity, Adowa’. From a sketch by J. Theodore Bent. The Illustrated London News, 6 May 1893, 556. Photo: private collection.
‘Kalenzia, Isle of Socotra, 1897’. Watercolour (detail), by Theodore Bent (private collection).

Other sightings include the solitary watercolour of Kalenzia, Isle of Socotra, 1897, that was sold at auction for 100 euros in 2013 in Germany.

There is also the tempting prospect that Bent’s sketches from their 1883/4 Cycladic trip might turn up!


One of Theodore’s sketches from his 1879 volume on San Marino (
Sadad, near Muskat (Exploration of the Frankincense Country, Southern Arabia’. The Geographical Journal, 1895, Vol. 6 (2) (Aug), p. 113).

Please do contact us at if you have or are aware of any original sketches by Theodore! [The DNB of 1901 adds to Bent’s entry that “[his] notebooks and numerous drawings and sketches remain in the possession of Mrs. Bent.” A few of his notebooks are in the Joint Library of the Hellenic and Roman Societies, London, but where are his “numerous drawings and sketches”? Do please let us know if you have any information on Theodore’s unpublished ones!]

Bent’s watercolour of the Castle of Khanfar, east of Aden, sketched on-site in March 1897. Original unknown, but reproduced in the Bents’ ‘Southern Arabia’ (1900).
Bent’s sketch of ‘Chipunza’s Kraal’ reproduced in his ‘The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland’ (1892). The original is said to be now in the National Archives, Harare (2022).

Additionally, four unpublished watercolour sketches by Bent (sizes n/a) are illustrated in Alice Norton’s article (she is the great-great niece of Mabel Bent): ‘Mabel Virginia Anna Bent – Explorer’, appearing in Carloviana 2023, the Journal of the Carlow Historical and Archaeological Society (Dec. 2022, pp.117-123). The four subjects are: 1) ‘Pilgrims Dancing’, the Dodecanese(?) Greece, 1885; 2) ‘Chipunza’s Kraal’, Mashonaland/Zimbabwe, 1891; 3) ‘Bell Tower Adoua, Church of “The Saviour of the World”’, Ethiopia, 1883; 4) ‘Island of Sokotra’, showing two camels and figures in the foreground and distant mountains, 1897.

Some of Bent’s sketches from his monograph on San Marino (1879).
Some of Bent’s sketches from his monograph on San Marino (1879).